On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth is an essay in Shakespearean criticism by the English author Thomas De Quincey, first published in the October 1823 edition of The London Magazine. Though brief, less than 2000 words in length, it has been called "De Quincey's finest single critical piece" Commentators who are dismissive of De Quincey's literary criticism in general make an exception for his essay on Macbeth.

As its title indicates, the essay concerns Act II, scene three in The Tragedy of Macbeth, in which the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is succeeded by Macduff and Lennox knocking at the gate of the castle. The knocking ends Act II, scene 2 and opens II,3, the famous Porter scene. De Quincey wrote that for him, the knocking always had a pronounced effect: "it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity...." De Quincey could not account rationally for this response, according to the then-accepted canons of literary criticism; and he proceeded, through his essay, to venture a more psychological interpretation than had previously been applied to Shakespeare. The essay foreshadows the psychological approaches of much later criticism.

"Penetrating and philosophic," De Quincey in this essay "produced conclusions as significant as anything in Coleridge or Hazlitt."

De Quincey also views his responses to the play in reference to another of his classic essays, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.


Excerpt

"In Macbeth, for the sake of gratifying his own enormous and teeming faculty of creation, Shakspeare has introduced two murderers: and, as usual in his hands, they are remarkably discriminated: but, though in Macbeth the strife of mind is greater than in his wife, the tiger spirit not so awake, and his feelings caught chiefly by contagion from her,--yet, as both were finally involved in the guilt of murder, the murderous mind of necessity is finally to be presumed in both. This was to be expressed; and on its own account, as well as to make it a more proportionable antagonist to the unoffending nature of their victim, "the gracious Duncan," and adequately to expound "the deep damnation of his taking off," this was to be expressed with peculiar energy. We were to be made to feel that the human nature, _i.e._, the divine nature of love and mercy, spread through the hearts of all creatures, and seldom utterly withdrawn from man,--was gone, vanished, extinct; and that the fiendish nature had taken its place. And, as this effect is marvellously accomplished in the _dialogues_ and _soliloquies_ themselves, so it is finally consummated by the expedient under consideration; and it is to this that I now solicit the reader's attention. If the reader has ever witnessed a wife, daughter, or sister, in a fainting fit, he may chance to have observed that the most affecting moment in such a spectacle, is _that_ in which a sigh and a stirring announce the recommencement of suspended life. Or, if the reader has ever been present in a vast metropolis, on the day when some great national idol was carried in funeral pomp to his grave, and chancing to walk near the course through which it passed, has felt powerfully, in the silence and desertion of the streets and in the stagnation of ordinary business, the deep interest which at that moment was possessing the heart of man,--if all at once he should hear the death-like stillness broken up by the sound of wheels rattling away from the scene, and making known that the transitory vision was dissolved, he will be aware that at no moment was his sense of the complete suspension and pause in ordinary human concerns so full and affecting, as at that moment when the suspension ceases, and the goings-on of human life are suddenly resumed. All action in any direction is best expounded, measured, and made apprehensible, by reaction. Now apply this to the case in Macbeth. Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady Macbeth is "unsexed;" Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated--cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs--locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested--laid asleep--tranced--racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them."




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